Univision’s Recent Hiccup Shows How Behind Latino Media is When it Comes to Race

Last week served as a not-so-friendly reminder that more work needs to be done to checking stereotypes and insensitive comments across English and Spanish-speaking media.

Following the dust-up o er The Real hosts’ quesadilla skit, where Tamera Mowry-Hosley, Jeannie Mai and Loni Love – all women of color – dressed up as stereotypical Mexican men, the icing on the “not, again, with this bullsh*t” cake, came from Univision, the biggest Spanish-language network on television.

When a picture of First Lady Michelle Obama was shown on popular program El Gordo y Flaca, then-Univision host Rodner Figueroa said, “Michelle Obama looks like she’s part of the cast of Planet of the Apes.” While the Venezuelan fashion commentator claims it was a “joke,” there’s nothing comical about comparing FLOTUS, an African-American woman, to an ape – especially when Black people have historically been depicted as with such dehumanizing, racially-charged imagery. Figueroa, who issued a defensive apology, has since been fired from the popular network.

Univision issued this statement: “Yesterday during our entertainment program ‘El Gordo y La Flaca’ Rodner Figueroa made comments regarding First Lady Michelle Obama that were completely reprehensible and in no way reflect Univision’s values or views. As a result, Mr. Figueroa was immediately terminated.”

While I’m glad to see Univision take action on this situation, the network should take a closer look at its programming and see why many, especially Afro-Latinos such as myself, aren’t surprised that Figueroa felt comfortable saying what he did. As a Black, U.S. born Latina, racial diversity isn’t something I’ve ever seen embraced or shown on Univision, or Spanish-language media for that matter. Both television and well-known magazines like People En Español, Latina and TV Y Novelas, promote Euro-centric beauty standards. Where are those of us who rock our pajóns, with hair textures that flow from kinky, tightly coiled to looser curls?

It is this lack of representation, that inspired me to create my blog, Ain’t I Latina?, where I highlight the stories of Afro-Latinas, including my own. While my family (Garifuna Hondurans) made sure I knew the importance of our culture when I was growing up in the 90s, not everyone is so fortunate, and our erasure from media is a subtle message that our presence is neither acknowledged and nor important. Afro-Latino actors and actresses have voiced their issues with the predominant racial binary, noting they’re frequently only cast in African-American roles but skipped over when it comes to playing a Latino/a in both English and Spanish.

To effect change it’s important to continue discussing diversity in media and pressuring for inclusion of all Latinos. I applaud campaigns such as Proyecto Más Color, started by Honduran sisters Sophia and Victoria Arzu, which are urging companies like Telemundo and Univision to get greater representation of Afro-Latinos in Latin American media. I’d like to see a conscious Afro-Latino/a on the executive board or in a management role at Univision or Telemundo. That won’t solve things overnight, but having representation on that level is an important first step.

It’s also important for journalists, bloggers and content creators within the digital space to have these diversity conversations on their platforms and across social media because there is power in messaging, which we’ve seen with the firing of PR exec Justine Sacco in 2013, and teen actress Zendaya calling out Fashion Police’s Giuliana Rancic’s loc comments, among other cases.

Since launching Ain’t I Latina?, I’ve been exposed to an entire digital community of Afro-Latinos/as that are creating content that speaks to our demographic, and calling out those that aren’t representing Latinos in our truest light. As this community continues to grow, it’s caused companies and brands to take notice.

To completely leave out a whole segment of your market (Afro-Latinos), as brands and marketers are now realizing, is ignorant from a societal and business perspective. Latino buying power has reached $1.5 trillion this year, according to Nielsen. It’s time brands start to realize they can’t afford to only market to a select few.

If we can learn anything from Figueroa’s comments, it’s that stereotypes run way deeper than a 60-minute broadcast. However, accountability, diversity in positions of power and a willingness to try something new can shift the current media landscape.

For more conversation on issues of diversity in media, join Janel Martinez at NAHJ’s Latinas In Media conference in NYC on March 28, where she’ll be speaking on panel “How Is The Media Incorporating Latino Coverage” alongside Remezcla’s own Managing Editor Andrea Gompf, Trilce Ortiz, senior digital editor of Chica Fresh, and panel moderator and entertainment reporter Monica Castillo.